An Independent Traditional 1928 BCP Ministry
Book of Common Prayer
The following is an excerpt from an article written in 1998 by Fr. David Edman for the "Depot Digest", the newsletter of the Church of the Holy Communion in Dallas, Texas. It is a wonderful explanation of why the Prayer Book is so important to traditional churches, and how it is simultaneously both the focal point of our worship and an expression of our beliefs.
We certainly do share with Christians everywhere - Baptists, Roman Catholics, Methodists, Lutherans, Pentecostals, Seventh Day Adventists, other Episcopalians, and so forth, the conviction that faith in Jesus Christ is where it all begins. We can rejoice in this, for we are thus enabled to respect one another, and regard all such as our brothers and sisters in the faith. Further, we can avoid the tendency to condemn all who do not believe exactly as we do to the fires of perdition.
As traditional Episcopalians however, we differ in that we are "Prayer Book Christians." Our beliefs and standards conform to the traditional Book of Common Prayer. If we share the general Christian orientation of, say, a "Bible church," we don't accept the anti-intellectualism which so often accompanies this point of view. If we broadly share the faith espoused by the Episcopal establishment, we do not share its bankrupt morality.
As for us, we choose to maintain the Prayer Book (1928 BCP, the real one!) as our guidance system. We do so in the belief that the Book of Common Prayer prevents us from straying into the quicksands of error, however appealing that terrain may seem from the borders. How does the Prayer Book accomplish this? Let us review some of the more pertinent factors.
1) The Prayer Book, to begin with, provides us with an approach to the Bible. While virtually all Christians claim the Scriptures to be their final authority, the manner in which they use (read "misuse") the Bible differs greatly. No one needs to be told that the Scriptures can be subjected to the most hideous distortion by those who take snippets here and there and turn it into an entire religion, as did the Branch Davidians. The method is called "proof-texting." By it the Bible can be made to support almost anything from murder to flying saucers. The Prayer Book, by contrast, requires us to approach the "whole" Bible, to search out the "mind of the Bible" by means of a lectionary, which is to say a table of daily readings which insures that the entire Bible forms our beliefs. It has been estimated that if the Daily Office were faithfully used, the Psalter would be negotiated about every two months, the New Testament about twice a year, and the Old Testament about once a year (with portions of the Apocrypha thrown in). Compare this with those who are broken-record-stuck on one chapter out of John or Romans, or who concentrate on one single book out of the 66, to the neglect of all others! The Prayer Book provides a wholesome approach to the Bible by insuring that all parts of it have a place in our belief system.
2) The Prayer Book provides us with an equally broad approach to the great salvation epic of Jesus Christ through the varying emphases of the Church Year. For about half of the year Prayer Book Christians re-live the salvation story through our observance of Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Passiontide, Easter, Ascension, and Pentecost. Then in the long Trinity season we concentrate on the teachings of the Lord and his Apostles. Thereby we are enabled to embrace the entirety of New Testament faith!
3) Again, the Prayer Book joins us with the broad current of Christian tradition. We find the legacy of the saints of all ages in the Prayer Book, the theologians, the reformers, the formative events such as the great Ecumenical Councils, the Reformation, and so forth. Compare this to those who imagine that Church history is a trifle, who feel they must leap over 2,000 years of Christian development directly to the New Testament without regard for wisdom and inspiration of the ages of Faith. Surely this constitutes a repudiation of the work of the Holy Spirit. The Prayer Book enables us to keep faith with our spiritual ancestry through incorporation of the ancient prayer books and other documents of religion.
4) The Book of Common Prayer provides us with bedrock Christian morality. The Prayer Book does not hedge on the moral absolutes of the Judeo-Christian tradition. They are chiseled in stone. Their uncompromising standards remain a clearly-defined alternative to the morality-is-what-you-make-it-out-to-be of many modern churches.
5) The liturgy of the Prayer Book delivers us from the big "pulpit personality." The charismatic figure plays a major role in American religion. One can observe examples on the so-called Christian networks: the smoothie, the ranter, the milker of emotions. Some have a genuine message to convey. Others are charlatans. But for us the Prayer Book is at the center of things - at once the voice of the people, and the voice of God. The Prayer Book is personality enough for us. It has charge of our worship together. It does not leave so important a matter to the whims of a single person, much less a "worship committee." To that extent it is the most democratic of worship forms, for it belongs equally to all. The day it was published in 1549, the liturgy was taken out of the hands of priests and placed in the hands of ordinary, everyday Christians. It was the greatest democratization of faith that ever took place, a charter of equality, for it made all equal under the governance of that book - clergy and laity, rich and poor, educated and uneducated.
6) It offers a dignity of worship commensurate with the greatness of God. With the Prayer Book there can be no bringing God down to the level of pop culture, as is the case with so many contemporary churches. No Prayer Book parish could ever advertise itself as having "the best band in town," as did one local congregation. That awesome distinction between the holy Creator and puny creature is assumed in every line of the Book of Common Prayer.
7) The Prayer Book has passed the 'test of time.' It began as the first translation of the Latin liturgy into English. The difference between that and subsequent revisions, over a period of 450 years, has been minimal, making it the oldest consistent liturgy in western culture. It is both a literary and a devotional document. By it the spirituality of such writers as John Donne, Shakespeare, Samuel Johnson, Jane Austen, Wordsworth, T. S. Eliot, and others was formed.
In brief, the Book of Common Prayer is our compass. If Scriptures and Tradition might be likened to magnetic north, the Prayer Book is a needle pointing steadily toward them, thereby enabling us to steer a steady course in a confusing world.
Father David A. Edman
Church of the Holy Communion